Picture the scene. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the pride of the Impossible Missions Force, jumps out of a plane with his moustachioed CIA minder, Walker (Henry Cavill). After freefalling a few thousand feet, one of them is struck by lightning, and there is lots of mid-air hurly-burly with oxygen canisters and parachutes. The stunt work and filming are hugely impressive, and if the two hunky heroes were hurtling towards a villain’s hidden fortress or escaping from a flock of hang-gliding assassins, then the scene would be thrilling, too.
But they aren’t. What they’re doing is – wait for it – going to a disco in the centre of Paris. A disco. So was a parachute jump really the most surreptitious and practical way for our super spies to get there? Of course not, but Christopher McQuarrie, the film’s writer-director, must have realised that if Ethan had taken the Metro to the club there might have been a gap of more than five minutes between action sequences – and there was no way he was going to let that happen.
Welcome to Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth film in the series, and the second in a row to have been made by McQuarrie. His mission, and he certainly chose to accept it, was to make this instalment the most action-packed of them all, and so one adrenalised, elaborate set piece follows another, for a bum-numbing two-and-a-half hours, whether there is any logic behind those set pieces or not. I suppose there is a plot threading them together, but I’m not sure what it is.
The film soon shoves aside coherent storytelling in favour of protracted fights and chases
It’s got something to do with three ‘plutonium cores’ which have been stolen by a band of terrorists called The Apostles. (They are essentially the same terrorists who were called The Syndicate in the previous film, but they’ve rebranded themselves and presumably updated their website accordingly.) To get the plutonium back, Ethan has to schmooze a fixer named the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, ie, Princess Margaret from The Crown), a coolly mischievous femme fatale who deserved a lot more screen time than she gets, and who is no relation to Scarlett Johansson’s character in The Avengers.
As usual, Hunt is aided and abetted by his two adoring sidekicks, the nervous boffin Benji (Simon Pegg) and the less nervous boffin Luther (Ving Rhames), who provide some amusing odd-couple banter. But the CIA’s boss (Angela Bassett) has insisted that Walker tag along, much to the annoyance of Ethan’s own boss, Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Then there’s Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), Ethan’s old MI6 flame, and Ethan’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and Solomon (Sean Harris), the rat-like baddie from the last film. But you’d need one of the IMF’s amazingly reliable tablets to keep track of who’s who, and whose side they’re all on.
Basically, whenever they get together for a chat, the villains say that the heroes have fallen into a trap, and the heroes reply that, no, the villains have fallen into a trap, and then a villain pulls off a rubber mask to reveal that he is actually a hero, and then everyone agrees that it is time for a shoot-out. Starting off as a glamorously retro European espionage caper, with an undercurrent of doom and a grandiose reference to Homer’s The Odyssey, the film soon shoves aside coherent storytelling in favour of protracted fights and chases, as Ethan hops from Berlin to Paris to London to Kashmir, perpetually in search of things to climb up, run along, and jump off.
It’s hard to warm to this invincible robot as much as you might warm to James Bond or Jason Bourne
It’s a brawn-over-brain affair. Whereas previous Missions were sometimes about being cleverer than the villains, this one is principally about being tougher and more determined. The main theme is that if you grit your teeth and stare so intently at your target that your eyes almost pop out of your skull, then you can somehow will yourself to victory – assuming, of course, you are as indestructible as Ethan. Although he isn’t officially a mutant or an alien, he can be thrown off a motorcycle at top speed, with no crash helmet on, and be fit as a fiddle a moment later.
This invulnerability can’t help but make Fallout less involving. If you were to judge the film according to the effort that has gone into planning and executing its increasingly spectacular and ludicrous action sequences, you could hail Mission: Impossible – Fallout as a masterpiece (as several critics have). Cruise does his own stunts, and his steely commitment to all the rope-swinging and rooftop-leaping is remarkable, especially bearing in mind that he is now 56, and must have been swigging from the fountain of youth between takes.
But if you judge the film according to how exciting those action sequences are, then Fallout falls short. However technically miraculous a helicopter dogfight or a multi-vehicle heist may be, it can’t really get the blood pumping or the sweat flowing if its tone isn’t consistent, and McQuarrie keeps wobbling between winking self-parody and apocalyptic seriousness. It can’t quite deliver, either, if it doesn’t have an interesting villain, or quotable dialogue, or a compelling narrative reason to happen – which brings us back to the aforementioned parachute jump. More importantly, the impact of these sequences is cushioned by having a hero who isn’t a human being.
Ethan’s buddies keep telling us what a good man Ethan is, and McQuarrie gives him some bad dreams to assure us that he has an inner life. But even after six films, it’s hard to warm to this invincible robot as much as you might warm to James Bond or Jason Bourne. Can you enjoy his knockabout adventures? Definitely. But can you care about them? Impossible.